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Film review

Planes fly higher than their pilots

Don't expect to forge an emotional attachment to the characters in Flyboys. Dogfights steal the show.

Published September 21, 2006

Turn on the classic film channels and you can see what war movies used to be: Good guys (Americans, mostly) with the purest of hearts and only the mildest frailties of spirit fought faceless bad guys (Germans, Japanese or American Indians, mostly) who were pure evil to the core.

The heyday of such films that celebrate the honor, glory and excitement of war has long passed, but the new World War I demi-epic Flyboys revisits it fairly effectively.

It's the somewhat-fact-based story of a group of young Americans in the early days of the war, before this country had formally entered the fray. For disparate reasons (family tradition, desperation, patriotism among them) they join the Lafayette Escadrille, a French air corps. Airplanes are fairly new contraptions with open cockpits and cloth wings. The recruits have to quickly learn to fly them and to carry on tactical battles against much more seasoned pilots.

Director Tony Bill (My Bodyguard) and the writing team know what the audience wants to see. They don't waste time with character development or plot, offering instead stereotypes and stock situations.

An example: A cowboy enlists because he has lost his ranch. He crashes during training, loses consciousness and awakens to find himself being cared for by a beautiful French girl. They fall instantly in love even though neither speaks the other's language.

Once the characters are rather hastily introduced, Bill gets us into the air for a series of dizzying and exciting low-tech air battles.

After years of action movies full of futuristic gadgetry and high-powered weapons, there's a certain warmth to this kind of battle scene. The pilots are flying in rickety machines, and they communicate with each other by hand signals and shouts. The closest thing they have to body armor is the scarf that keeps their necks from chafing as they look around for enemy flyers.

The battles are harrowing and impressively shot, but there's one problem. All the flyboys wear Snoopy-esque goggles and leather helmets, so it's nearly impossible to tell them apart. That makes for some awkward drama, especially in the early going when the number of pilots is large and we can't keep track of who's dead.

But that doesn't really matter too much. In fact, none of the interpersonal stuff in Flyboys amounts to much. The love story between the cowboy (who emerges eventually as the lead character, played by James Franco) is trite, the subplots are familiar and the acting (with the notable exception of French character actor Jean Reno) is uninvolving.

But the battle scenes, along with the cursory history lesson and the thought of the real-life pilots who flew those rickety flying machines, ends up making Flyboys moderately compelling and a lot of fun.


Grade: B

Director: Tony Bill

Screenplay: Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward

Cast: James Franco, Martin Henderson, Jennifer Decker and Jean Reno

Rating: PG-13 for war action violence and some sexual content

Running time: 139 min.

[Last modified September 20, 2006, 10:00:23]

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